I’m writing this on the plane heading back to New Zealand after a month long visit to the United States. Although Wellington is my home now, it’s been wonderful to revisit familiar places and to feel the warmth both from the northern hemisphere summer, and from my friends’ and family’s unconditional love.
On this trip to the States, in addition to seeing loved ones, I was excited to visit to my home studio to take a class with my one of my instructors from yoga teacher training, and return to my favourite restaurants and organic food stores.
I was determined to eat all of the foods I missed most since moving to New Zealand: collard greens, Mexican and Ethiopian food, and a certain seven layer cake from a bakery in upstate New York which may in fact be the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
In Wellington, eating mindfully and healthily is the norm. Our pantry is stocked with jars of dried black beans, brown rice, millet, and at least twenty varieties of herbal tea. Since both my partner and I love to cook, most meals are prepared from scratch with fresh, seasonal finds from the weekend farmers’ market.
When we do shop at the supermarket, items have to pass the following tests before they go in the basket:
- Do I know what all of the ingredients are?
- Is eating this going to make me feel good afterward?
If an item has a bunch of things that I can’t pronounce or don’t recognize, or if it contains ingredients that we know are aggravating to our constitutions, then we don’t buy it, simple as that.
But when you’re away from home and your routine is disrupted, you don’t always have the same level of control over what you eat. Depending where you are, food options that are actually nourishing for the body may be hard to find.
After our twelve-hour flight from Auckland, my partner and I arrived at Los Angeles International airport and discovered that vegetarian options were virtually non-existent in our terminal. Every salad was covered in chicken, and apparently pre-made (though they did offer to pull the chicken off of one of the salads for me.)
For me, travel is as much about the food as it is about anything else. Knowing how much good food there is to be had in LA, I was shocked that the airport seemed to have no trace of any of it.
After walking around the terminal twice, we settled on a 1950s style diner that at least had a vegetarian burger on the menu. However, I was dismayed to find that it arrived drenched in grease, mayonnaise, and with a layer of orange “American” cheese with the consistency of plastic. My expectations for airport food hadn’t been particularly high, but this was still a disappointment.
I grumpily began to scrape the excess mayonnaise from my veggie burger, and pressed my napkin into the patty to soak up the grease. I looked across the table at my partner, who was eating hers with zero fuss. I pouted and continued to poke at mine with a fork.
My partner raised an eyebrow at me from across the table.
“Really, Val. One burger isn’t going to kill you.”
It’s a thin line between eating mindfully, and eating neurotically.
I thought back to some of my travels in places where food is scarce and reminded myself that every morsel is a blessing. Words of wisdom from one of my ayurveda teachers rang in my ears.
“If you’re making healthy choices 70% of the time, don’t beat yourself up over the other 30%.”
I reminded myself of aparigraha. The fifth yama. Non-attachment, or letting it go. Letting go my expectations of what food should be, and letting go of my disappointment over dripping mayonnaise and grease. Letting go the idea that as a yogini and yoga teacher, I shouldn’t be eating this.
After all, wasn’t I the one always telling my students to let go of the word, “should?” Why was I feeling it so acutely myself? So it wasn’t a bowl of miso or a big plate of vegetables and tofu. My stomach was hungry, and this was what there was.
My annoyance melted, and I picked up the burger. And was surprised to discover that actually, it wasn’t half bad.
Over the course of a month, we visited friends and family in nine states. I was excited to share the unique regional food cultures of each location with my partner. We also made homemade dinners overflowing with kale and fresh greens for the friends and family who hosted us along the way.
The state of Wisconsin is known mainly for three things: American football, beer, and cheese. The small towns that we passed through on the road to visit my sister in northern Minnesota had the same options: a brewery, a cheese factory, and/or a Scandanavian bakery. Once again we were in a land where all salads involved chicken or other meat.
Sometimes being forced to change your food habits can feel frustrating. But sometimes too, it can be part of the fun. As they say in the US, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
We stopped the car, and embraced the cheese. In Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, we took a brewery tour and then went to a bar in town so my partner could experience the local wonder that is deep-fried, beer-battered cheese curds (cheese curds are small chunks of fresh cheddar), which are served with ranch dressing.
Assuming such a thing even existed in my regularly scheduled life as a yoga teacher in Wellington, deep fried cheese curds would fall squarely into the category of a tamasic food that I would choose not to eat.
But hey, even yoga teachers go on holiday, right? And it would have been terribly selfish to allow my partner to consume such an unhealthy item entirely on her own. Clearly I needed to help her with this monumental task of consuming a big plate of incredibly delicious fried cheese…
I have to say, it all went downhill from there. I drove the remaining two and a half hours to my sister’s house with a massive stomachache, and my partner put it best when she said:
“That was so good, and I’m really glad we’ll never eat it again.”